Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Synonyms, the Constitution, and Ann Coulter

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

--Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

I'm not sure why, but whenever I shop at my local Target, I always happen to go by the scrapbook supplies aisle. Worse, I notice that I'm passing by these things.

Being a middle-aged man rather than an old lady, I don't keep a scrapbook. But if I did maintain one, the theme would be "silly things said about the Constitution by columnists." Every time I read an article where a preposterous statement was made about the grand document, I'd print it and lovingly paste it into the pages of my scrapbook as a keepsake.

Thanks to Ann Coulter's column last week, if I did keep such a scrapbook, it would have an addition, with an annotation next to it expressing my disbelief that someone with a law degree from the University of Michigan, and who clerked for a federal judge could have written something so ludicrous concerning the Constitution.

In the column, Coulter makes the point that Barack Obama did not do very well in the Saddleback forum (I can't argue with that). But in blasting Obama, she wrote this bizarre statement:

"Say, you know what else was 'historically' not defined in the Constitution? Slavery. The words 'slavery' and 'slave' do not appear once in the original Constitution. The framers correctly thought it would sully the freedom-enshrining document to acknowledge the repellent practice. (Much like abortion!) But in 1865, the 13th Amendment banned slavery throughout the land, in the first constitutional phrase ever to mention 'slavery': "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.'"

When I read this, my reaction was much like the GEICO caveman in this commercial. Yeah, I have a response--WHAT?

Let us suppose for a second that some liberal politician, commentator, or unbathed college professor wrote a pro-gun control article dispensing with the Second Amendment concerns by the declaration "Not once in the Second Amendment are 'guns' mentioned." Don't you suppose Ann Coulter might be in the forefront of those critical of such thinking? Wouldn't Coulter be among those likely to point out--correctly, actually--that the Second Amendment uses the term "arms" and it is clear from the context that this means guns? She might be expected to make some crack about how the author of the gun control piece apparently was asleep in grammar school when the concept of synonyms was presented to the class.

And yet, this is EXACTLY what Coulter does in her article. Yes, the pre-Civil War Constitution does not use the words "slave" or "slavery." But it implicitly mentions slavery three times. It just uses other words to describe the practice, much as "arms" is employed instead of "guns" or "weapons" in the Second Amendment. Slaves are referred to as "other persons" in the Enumeration clause (Article I, section 2), as "such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit" in the Slave Trade clause (Article I, section 9), and as "Person(s) held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof" in the Fugitive Slave clause (Article IV, section 2).

If Coulter had written that the framers intentionally avoided use of the term "slavery" because of its anti-democratic implications, I'd have no objection to that. But notice this isn't what she means; she writes "The framers correctly thought it would sully the freedom-enshrining document to acknowledge the repellent practice." Nonsense, as I've just shown, the Constitution does acknowledge the "repellent practice" in several places.

If you employ the idea that something isn't in the Constitution unless it's mentioned by a specific word or series of words, you can make all sorts of silly observations. Did you know that nowhere in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to establish a "capital city"? That's because it's called "such District... as may... become the Seat of the Government of the United States" (Article I, section 8; see also Amendment XXIII). Did you know that it is perfectly acceptable to deny a woman the right to vote based on her "gender"? That's because the Constitution only disallows preventing people from voting due to their "sex." Did you know that Congress is not authorized to "establish a uniform system for determining masses and volumes"? That's because the Constitution only gives Congress authority to "fix the Standard of Weights and Measures" (Article I, section 8). We could literally play this game all night.

I don't mean to rant, but Coulter's peculiar remark is a great example of the error made by those who remark--usually quite indignantly--that the phrase "separation of church and state" appears nowhere in the First Amendment. Often a person who says this will then observe that the phrase is from a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to the Danbury Baptists. And this is, of course, true--but only in a very technical and limited sense. Look what Jefferson actually wrote in the letter:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

The emphasis is mine, and the emphasis is, of course, to show that all Jefferson was doing through use of the phrase "wall of separation between Church & State" was giving a perfectly reasonable explication of the dynamic interplay of the two religion clauses of the First Amendment, which he had stated immediately prior to the wall metaphor. That is, he was reminding the parishioners of Danbury that prohibition of an establishment of religion means, in essence, "religion, you keep your hands off of government; we're not a theocracy." And the guarantee of free exercise effectively means "government, you keep your hands off religion; everyone here is free to worship in a manner of his own choosing."

It's hard to think of a better way of making this point than Jefferson did. And when someone says that "separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution, it's a bit like what Ann Coulter did with her "no mention of slavery" remark--technically true, but not at all accurate in any meaningful sense.

Ann, if you read this, in spite of your novel remark on the Constitution, I still think you're pretty. Now remember: if somebody asks you today if any man said you are good-looking, the answer is "yes." That's because calling a woman pretty and calling her good-looking are basically the same thing. Isn't the array of choices provided by the English language wonderful?

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